Sierra Leone: Any FGM ban must cover all girls and women, Bondo has no ‘informed consent’


There is a debate going on in Sierra Leone around female genital cutting sparked by statements made by the country’s First Lady.

The proposed position by H.E. Fatima Bio and the Minister of Gender Welfare is that after the age of 18 women in Sierra Leone should be allowed to enter the Bondo Society and have part or all of their clitoris removed. The argument is that at this age young women should be allowed to choose what happens to their body.

I agree with this position to a point. Yes, women should have the right to choose to modify or alter their bodies. I fully support a woman’s right to want to be cut but without information of the risks involved with cutting an 18-year-old Sierra Leonean woman is no better off than a 12-year old whose parents are making the decision for her.

I have been accused of hypocrisy repeatedly by pro-cutting Bondo enthusiasts in Sierra Leone because I chose to circumcise my son when he was born. Their position is that if you are against FGM, then you must also be against MGC.

When you go to the hospital in the US for any surgical operation, you’re briefed on potential complications. They let you know even if there is a .01% chance that you could suffer adverse effects or die. By the time you accept to do surgery you’ve given consent, yes, but it is INFORMED CONSENT. You often have to sign a form to say you understand and know the risks.

When my son was born in NYC, I was told that circumcision was not ”medically” necessary. Along with my son’s father, we made a decision we wanted to circumcise our son. At the hospital, my OB/GYN who had taken care of me throughout my pregnancy (not a random woman who cuts boys in the bush) gave me a form to sign to consent to the removal of my son’s foreskin.

When I signed and approved my son’s circumcision, I knew ALL the risks involved with the process. I decided that the long term benefits far outweighed the risks. The decision to circumcise him was what I would call INFORMED CONSENT.

“There are three critical components to informed consent:

full disclosure of the nature of the procedure and the participant’s involvement,

adequate comprehension on the part of the potential participant, and.

the participant’s voluntary choice to participate.”

(modified from this piece from Cornell on consent)

Those who argue that circumcision for women should be done at the age of 18 leave out the fact that no pre-cutting education goes on before the Bondo Initiation. The whole process and initiation are secret. You don’t know what is going to happen before it does.

No one tells parents and their children the potential risks to the cutting. What percentage of girls die? What percentage get infections that are left untreated and lead to further complications in life?

What percentage end up unable to safely deliver their babies because of scar tissue left behind by the sowei who cut them? The soweis cutting how many of them have had past incidents where their cutting led to complications? And do the parents and girls know that the sowei who is cutting them has more likely than not had alcohol to drink, smoked weed, and or chewed medicinal herbs to make sure they are intoxicated ”get the mind to cut”?

Most soweis can not cut without getting intoxicated. Who would be able to take a blade to a child kicking and screaming without some kind of drugs? Same way children had to be drunk to perform acts of violence during the war in Sierra Leone, same way soweis need to lose theirs to cut.

I ask all this to say we have to stop listening to these our sisters who try to conflate issues and compare circumcision of boys done in hospitals to female genital cutting in Sierra Leone.

How many mothers and fathers of girls under and young women over 18 are fully informed of the risks involved in cutting their children’s clitoris?

If fully informed of the risks 18-year-old consents to being cut I applaud her and will support and protect her right to choose what happens to her body. They should be able to sign and just like I did for my son to say yes I know all the risks and I still want this.

Sierra Leone currently has no law for the protection of girls or women against female genital cutting. Over 90% of women in Sierra Leone have undergone the procedure, some as early as 6 years old. Bondo is the rite of passage that is meant to prepare “girls for motherhood and marriage.” The proposed policy by the Minister of Gender and those interested in retaining the cutting of girls is to make it okay at the age of 18. This is unacceptable.

We have to protect girls and women in Sierra Leone from all forms of violence including female genital cutting. The approach must be intersectional. Rape, domestic violence or intimate partner abuse, structural violence that prevents women from accessing power in politics and yes female genital violence are all harmful to the well being of girls and women. All forms of violence must be eradicated so that Sierra Leonean girls and women can thrive and we can move closer to attaining gender equality. The only culture we should protect is the culture that says girls and women must be safe, nurtured, and protected.


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  • Mark

    Does no-one else notice the sickening hypocrisy here? The writer talks about moving “closer to attaining gender equality”, and is against female genital cutting before age 18, but had her son circumcised.

    What’s wrong with waiting until males are 18 before having their genitals cut? It’s their body after all.

    Three national medical organizations (Iceland, Sweden and Germany) have called for infant male circumcision to be *banned*, and two others (Denmark and the Netherlands) have said they’d support a ban if they didn’t think it would drive the practice underground.

    “Routine” circumcision *is* banned in public hospitals in Australia (almost all the men responsible for this policy will be circumcised themselves, as the male circumcision rate in Australia in 1950 was about 90%).

    Did the writer know this? If not, she wasn’t giving informed consent.

    If it weren’t a religious thing, elective circumcision of boys would have banned in lots of countries decades ago, same as it was for girls.

    • Yes, the writer knows what other countries are doing and have done and she fully understood that this was an elective procedure. However, she made the decision anyway.
      The writer also knows that there are proven benefits to male circumcision as a preventative method to reduce HIV/AIDS infection. Living on the African continent and aware of these risks I was compelled to make the informed decision to circumcise my son. The difference between my decision and that of parents who cut their daughters is that I WAS FULLY INFORMED before I gave consent.

  • Michael Butscher

    So you think it would be ok that little girls are cutted if the parents are properly informed (as you described) and allow it anyway?

    Trying to emphasize gender equality but treating bodily harm differently for boys and girls will obviously lead to weird logical conclusions or contradictions.

    • No I think you missed the point: 1. Parents currently consenting for their girls to be cut ARE NOT FULLY INFORMED of the risks 2. After age 18 if the practice is still done under the guise of a secret society then even as adults women would not be FULLY INFORMED of the risks. 3. There are proven benefits to male circumcision as a preventative method to reduce HIV/AIDS infection. Living on the African continent and aware of these risks I was compelled to make the informed decision to circumcise my son. The difference between my decision and that of parents who cut their daughters is that I WAS FULLY INFORMED before I gave consent.